When Women Are Tapped To Lead The Family Firm

When we think about business succession, we often see it a bit like succession in a royal family where control of the kingdom passes from king to prince. But while father-to-son business succession may be most common, there are an increasing number of daughters who take the reins to lead the family business. This is especially true in China, where the daughter is the only child in many families because of the country’s One Child Policy.

Having more female heirs holding the reins is good news as a growing body of evidence suggests that when the baton is passed to a daughter, the process tends to go more smoothly.  Usually, one of the most vulnerable times in a family business is during the transition period when leadership passes from one generation to the next. But daughters tend to have better management and communication skills, which are vital in times of business transition,  while father/son relationships tend to have more conflict, which can make for a rocky changing of the guard.

But it is not all smooth sailing for women tapped to lead the family firm.  When a daughter takes on the leadership role, the single biggest challenge may likely be dealing with her husband.  It can be hard for a man to accept that his wife is more powerful and wealthier than he is. In this situation, during the succession planning and transition process, both the daughter and her husband have to learn to balance ego and sensitivity. The daughter needs to have a good balance of what are typically considered ‘masculine’ strengths – assertiveness and decisiveness – and ‘feminine’ ones – care and respect. The husband needs to be able to balance his ego and his competencies with love and empathy.

One successful case to learn from is that of the Hangzhou-based Wensli Group.  Founded in 1975 by Ms. Shen Aiqin, the company designs and manufactures silk fabrics and garments and has its sights set on being the Hermès of China. Shen Aiqin retired in 2010 after passing the baton to her daughter Tu Hongyan, who is now Chairwoman of Wensli Group. Tu’s husband, Li Jianhua, is President of Wensli Group. An accomplished industry veteran in his own right, he joined the family business in 2003, two years after marrying Tu Hongyan. Though Tu is ultimately in charge, she and Li work very closely together in leading Wensli Group; their egos take a back seat to what’s best for the company.

They play very different roles within the company. Tu Hongyan is more externally focused and implementation oriented while Li Jianhua is more internal focused and strategic oriented. When the couple disagree on company strategy or management issues they are committed to reaching a consensus through open, constructive communication.  They have even drafted a clear set of principles in order to guide their management of conflict, emotions and roles – they put the company’s interest first, they have clearly defined their roles, and they never argue with each other within the company.

Their mutual respect for one another is clear, as is their shared goal of doing what’s best to ensure the continued development of the family business. Indeed the company has continued to flourish as the couple steer it through a strategic transformation and gradual globalization. It has even been able to recruit top tier international talent – last year the former CEO of Hermès Textile Holdings joined as CEO. The mother-to-daughter succession of the Wensli Group and the template that Tu Hongyan and her husband have developed for managing their business+life partnership provide good examples for other family businesses to consider as they prepare for their own succession journey.

Husband/wife collaborations have long been an important type of partnership in Chinese family businesses.  Driven by shared goals, “power couples” with a solid emotional foundation can work together to grow their company. It can also be a valuable experience for them to grow together as a couple, along with their business. As more and more women take on the task of leading the family firm, it is now more important than ever for couples to master the art of being partners both at home and at work. Those that do have the potential to be virtually unstoppable.



Jean Lee is Professor of Management, Michelin Chair Professor in Leadership and HR and Co-Director of CEIBS Centre for Family Heritage.